I’m starting this occasional series on writers and writing by sharing some photos that help place the most romantic literary siblings England has ever produced, Emily, Anne and Charlotte Brontë, in their Yorkshire town, Haworth.
A little background
The sisters’ books are a strange combination of unearthliness and realism, wild imagination and restraint, romance and pragmatism. Read together, the seven completed novels provide us with the unusual chance to see three sides of the same coin (I’m counting the rim).
The resonance in the sisters’ styles and world-view caused some reviewers to think they could trace the hand of one person, writing with increasing experience. They were swiftly outed as women, despite publishing under androgynous pseudonyms so their work might be judged on the same terms as male writers.
They were right to be concerned: despite their popularity, the Brontës’ passionate writing was judged to be unwomanly by critics of the day.
Contemporary readers poured in fascinated horror over Charlotte’s book Jane Eyre and Emily’s Wuthering Heights. History has remained faithful to these jewels in the crown, which regularly feature in the top 20 of British best all time book lists. The other five novels languish in relative obscurity, largely unloved. I’d love to do something about that!
Haworth’s Main Street slides picturesquely down the steep valley side, chocolate box style, towards moorland. First mentioned in 1209, the town is shaped today by literary tourism.
It’s just 30 miles from my own home town in Yorkshire’s neighbouring county, Lancashire. Northerners either side of the border may snort in mock indignation to read this, but these sister counties have more in common than we like to let on, despite our medieval dispute, the War of the Roses.
This may help explain some of my fascination with the Brontës. Moorland dominates my home town too: it’s easy for me to understand how you can see life and wild beauty where others only see bleakness.
Red rose folk reach Haworth only after winding on a narrow road, edged with unusually dilapidated dry stone walls, through miles of the wild, remote moorland landscape that helps make Emily’s Wuthering Heights so atmospheric.
Links with the rest of Yorkshire are little better than with the old enemy, though steam trains still call at Haworth’s quaint railway station on the Keighley and Worth Valley Line – a preserved, heritage route. The idea came after Charlotte Brontë’s death when a civil engineer visited the town to pay homage.
Brontë parsonage museum
If you love the Brontës’ books and would also like to pay homage, you might like to visit Haworth, where the family’s parsonage home is preserved as a museum.
Original furniture, scraps of writing, sketches, needlework and personal possessions bring the Brontës vividly to life. Items are displayed on rotation to help preserve them. Go early in the day or outside peak season to avoid the crowds.
When I visited a decade ago, the emphasis on tragedy and poor sanitation made this the nearest thing to a ghost tour I’ve ever experienced. The average age of death in the village at the time was pitifully low: water from the sloping graveyard that backs on to the parsonage contaminated the local drinking supply.
Since the visit, my thoughts about the work of one of my literary heroines, Charlotte Brontë, are inextricably linked to her life story, despite knowing this is not what she would have wanted.
Maria Brontë, her mother, died when her oldest child was just seven. Two of Charlotte’s sisters died as children. When Charlotte was part way through writing Shirley, her remaining three siblings died within a just few months of each other. She herself died in the early stages of pregnancy, aged 38, leaving her elderly father in the care of her new husband.
Charlotte was the only one of the family to be famous by the time of her death, so you’ll find more of her possessions in the Parsonage Museum. You might even see the small lace bonnet for the baby never born.
Walking in the family sitting room makes it too easy to imagine this dwindling family trying to hold things together for each other and their almost blind father in this increasingly desolate house, dug in between a cemetery and a windswept moor.
I left the Parsonage in tears and I’m sure many others will feel the same: it was a relief to escape back into the sunlight of the 21st Century.
A dark context for bright minds
I’d prefer to think of the life, love and fun there must have been in this bright, creative household when they were children, writing juvenilia about their fantasy worlds Gondal and Angria, or young adults reading each other snippets from the novels they were writing.
Now I place their creativity in a darker context, it makes their achievement more remarkable. And it explains why they wrote about love with so much foreboding: love and loss were inextricable. If only they had lived longer, what a literary inheritance they’d have left us!
One of the high prices of fame is the tendency of others to speculate. You’ll read online, after just a little searching, that Charlotte Brontë lost the will to live, trapped in an unhappy marriage and deliberately died. I think this is a gross misreading of her character, so I’m willing to counter-speculate.
I believe that life taught this romantic woman a gentle lesson, as it so often does. Despite championing the power of mystical, hot, true love (‘my hand having once touched hers it could never be a stranger to it again…’) she married someone she liked and was happy. Her biographer Mrs Gaskell tells us Charlotte’s final words to her new husband were:
‘Oh, I am not going to die, am I? He will not separate us, we have been so happy!’
The truth is likely to remain elusive – as with the intriguing question of what happened to the follow up novel to Wuthering Heights that her sister Emily was writing.
Shirley and Villette: neglected gems
I love Charlotte’s last two books just as dearly as the famous one. Don’t read either in hope of finding a Jane Eyre sequel. But if you can handle Jane Eyre – the language, high romance, the slow burn – you’re ready for these. I’ll be writing more about them later in this series, but for now, here’s just a teaser:
Why read Shirley?
It has the most attractive heroines of any Brontë novel (based on Emily and Anne Brontë); it’s heartwarming, despite the context in which it was written.
How does it compare to Jane Eyre?
It takes a step towards Elizabeth Gaskell.
Why read Villette?
For its unlikely hero. For its uniquely modern, almost interactive aspects. And because it’ll haunt you ever afterwards.
How does it compare to Jane Eyre?
It’s like drinking whisky when you’re used to wine.
If you want something meaty, unconventional, with some decidedly modern elements, choose Villette. For a more traditional love story, giving insight into England around the time of the Napoleonic wars, choose Shirley.
This is Part I of a short, monthly series celebrating Charlotte Bronte and her lesser known novels. Part II has the working title ‘The Elephant in the Room’.
Visitor information: BrontË parsonage museum
Church Street, Haworth, West Yorkshire BD22 8DR
Please check the website for opening dates and times before planning your trip – it’s closed for part of the winter.
If you’ve read these books, whether you love them or hate them, or if you have them on your reading list, feel free to let me know – but please don’t share spoilers!